The Arctic was part of our imagined world long before it became part of our actual world. People had ideas about the North Pole, about the wilderness of ice masses, before there were any eyewitnesses to report on them from experience. The less people knew, the more marvellous the images of the unknown land became – if you had not seen it, you could dream it up yourself.
ARCTIC is about these dreams. Some of the dreams remained fantastic stories; others became real – real, that is, for the men who went there. First the dream was the Northwest Passage, which offered a route to China over the top of the globe. Then it was the North Pole itself – who would get there first?
ARCTIC is about these journeys – those in the minds of the dreamers and those in reality. The expeditions drew their impetus from a variety of motives ranging from the trade interests and territorial policies of empires to romantic longings and the pursuit of knowledge, experience and great achievements by individualistic adventurers. At times the motives coincided, and an entire society could be seized by the ‘white fever’ – the urge to go north.
ARCTIC is divided into seven sections. The first section The Sublime shows visual examples of the mixture of terror and delight with which artists cultivated the vast landscape. Under the heading Observations, we meet both scientists and visual artists who give us knowledge of the Arctic region based on investigations and observations. The third section of the exhibition The wide world features artists’ conceptions of the unique and special place that is the Arctic, while Destruction and Mythologies take us into the heroes’ world. Finally, the sixth and seventh sections Voices and Faces and Conquest are about people: those who were there and those who wanted to be there. As key events of this story we learn of six of the most significant expeditions, each with its protagonist: Sir John Franklin, Fridtjof Nansen, Salomon Andrée, Frederick Cook, Robert Peary and Knud Rasmussen.
ARCTIC is an exhibition that blends cultural and historical material with art, including a significant amount of contemporary art. It belongs at a museum like Louisiana mainly because of our belief that, by reflecting art and cultural history in each other, we can reveal aspects of both that would otherwise remain invisible. Our culture is full of ideas, conscious and unconscious – and artistic images are deeply interwoven with the reality from which they arise.
The Arctic – as everyone knows – is a huge challenge for the future of humanity, for our civilization. The Arctic today is much more a part of the real world than of the world of imagination. It is important to know the stories about this place, which is now undergoing a transformation. The knowledge focuses our view of what is happening now – and that is one of the museum’s most important tasks. If the North Pole melts, we will have both a new world and new ideas.
Art shows us images of situations we could not bear in real life. Confronting horror produces shock and repulsion, but as long as it is fiction, we can take it. We might even come back to reality with a sense of satisfaction that it is not like in the picture. In that way, horrifying art can elevate our everyday lives and reassure us that reality is not as bad as all that.
Philosophers of the late 18th century used the term “the sublime” to describe that mechanism. Sublime subjects for art were found in nature. Erupting volcanoes, impassable mountains and stormy seas were impressive because of their majesty and brutal beauty, and horrific because the message was clear: nature is big and we are small. Perhaps the world is not made with humans in mind.
And yet, here we are looking at the landscape, however awesome it may be, as an image. We can rise above the horror. We can grasp it by representing it as an image, by transforming it into art – or just into language. Hence, sublime art was considered edifying because it enabled citizens to deal with the boundless and the threatening.The sublime is not out there in the world. It is the effect the world can have on the viewer. About the Arctic just enough was known that the endless ice and the dangers lurking in the forbidding landscape could be elevated into art as something beautiful and horrible. The fiercer, the better. The London culture industry leapt at the opportunity, turning Arctic horror into the visual entertainment of the day. The artist Guido van der Werve makes a comment on that tradition today.
The Arctic in a sense is too big to be a landscape, if the word “landscape” is taken to mean something familiar framed by experiences, moods and memories. The feeling of boundlessness is powerful and somehow makes the Arctic a place without images, because you cannot take a step back, raise your eyes and capture an impression. The eye is always shifting between the biggest things – breadth and depth – and the smallest things, which mirror the biggest. There is no structural difference between a small lump of ice and a big iceberg: The crystals behave the same, the fissures and fractures are the same – the big is visible in the small. And there is no real difference between two icebergs, if you will. Though no two are ever alike, they are still created the same.
Distance is a permanent issue in the Arctic. You cannot judge distance. You can teach yourself that things are much farther away than they seem, because you know that is often how it is. But you cannot experience it.
Distance can also become distancelessness, because, in a sense, it does not really matter where you are – unless you have errands in the wasteland. It is as if the whole world moves along with you. The Arctic is not a destination. It is an element you are in.
The vastness – and the beauty – of the Arctic have to do with these qualities. They affect us, who come from countries with structured landscapes, very powerfully and trigger an unmistakable sense of the place as special and unique. That is another reason why artists for so many years have dealt with the ice and the snow and the light and the sound and the cold and the dark, each in his or her own way interpreting the sensory presence, or absence, that occurs there – as matter, symbol, image or narrative.
ANDRÉE’S BALLOON EXPEDITION WAS A STRANGE AND UTTERLY TRAGIC STORY THAT ILLUSTRATES THE CULTURE OF THE POLAR EXPEDITIONS WITH THEIR DUELS OF HONOUR AND MASCULINE COMPETITIVE IDEALS. Andrée was educated in the technical sciences and was thus a fierce rationalist; he believed in progress and industry and was an ardent enthusiast and unshakeable optimist. But when he finally took off from Svalbard, on his second attempt, he probably knew in his heart that it would never succeed. Heartbreakingly, he had become a prisoner of his own role – giving up in front of a public that had witnessed his commitment to his philosophy of the future was not an option. Posterity has debated what really mattered most to Andrée: reaching the North Pole or demonstrating the possibilities of a particular technology – balloon travel. And the consensus inclines to the latter.
On 11 July 1897, the wind was favourable, and the balloon rose into the sky, then almost plunged into the sea a few minutes later. Afterwards it rose again as it was supposed to, but now without steering gear – it simply had to drift where the wind blew it. Soon it was all over. The balloon lay like a big maimed bird, a heavy, wet, dark monument to failed hopes
and impossible lightness.
Strindberg, 25 years old and recently engaged to be married, was the first to die, then Fraenkel and Andrée, 27 and 43 years old. What really happened was not discovered until thirty years later. The three corpses were found, along with remains that included a number of matchless photographs – five rolls of film with a total of 93 images, which are now being shown in their entirety for the first time in the Louisiana exhibition. And you can see in black and white how everything went so wrong.
FRIDTJOF NANSEN’S ADVENTURE CULMINATED IN A LEGENDARY FINAL SCENE. One day, after wandering around on the ice for a year and a half with his assistant, Hjalmar Johansen, and now on the brink of disaster, Nansen heard the baying of dogs. He went around an iceberg and suddenly saw a man standing before him. Nansen tipped his hat and said, “How do you do?” Fredrick Jackson, a polar explorer himself, answered, as any gentleman would, “How do you do?” and continued, “Aren’t you Nansen?” “Yes, I am Nansen.”
Nansen was a hero. Talented, intelligent, with a scientific background and great ambition, photogenic, with great charisma and integrity. His technological inspiration came from Norwegian skiing culture, and the rest he learned from the locals. Nansen, who had a rational, innovative temperament, put his ear to the ground and listened. But he was also a romantic adventurer who was captivated by the dream.
Nansen’s key stratagem was brilliant. He assumed that the ice had to drift from east to west across the North Pole, so he let his ship, the Fram, become icebound – it was built for that. Everything succeeded – and yet not quite. The Fram froze in the ice and drifted, but not far enough to the north, so Nansen decided to get off and continue on foot. He got farther north than anyone had before, but he never reached the Pole. He did however return home, as a scientist with many observations and a wealth of fascinating photographs portraying “man facing nature” in the best Romantic style: gazing, dreaming, evaluating, using all his intellect to get through the ice on which he remained the great authority for the rest of his life.
The Arctic is a wasteland. But it is also animal life and human life. It is voices and faces saying that, even here, it is possible to live – if you put your mind to it. While many of those who journeyed north certainly put their minds to it, they did not change their accustomed mindset. Those who survived the journey north were those who did like the people who were already there: listened to the world, putting their ear to the ground, or the ice, whichever was holding them up.
Humans can live in a lot of different places when they have to. They do not live the same way, but something about the way they live remains the same: If you cannot find food, you die. If you cannot take care of your offspring, your family dies. If families do not watch out for each other, the community dies.
There are many ways of living, and there are many ways of surviving. Animal hunting takes care of small-scale metabolism. Stories and images provide the grand perspective.
Some of those who journeyed north were very surprised to find people already living there. Some were so surprised, they did not even regard them as people and displayed great inhumanity. Today, when many of the people who live in the Arctic want a life like everyone else, live and survive just like everyone else, there are still those who find that unbecoming. Now, the Arctic itself, the untouched, the landscape, the ice, has a voice. And once again, the people who live there have to consider whether they can live and survive there.